Somewhere in La Mancha, in a place whose name I do not care to remember…
This line, arguably one of the most famous in literary history, is the opening of Miguel de Cervantes’ The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha (or just Don Quixote, for short) which is regarded as one of the world’s first modern novels.
Published in two parts in 1605 and 1615, the story follows Alonso Quixano, a Spanish nobleman who has read so many chivalric romances that he loses his mind and decides to become a knight-errant to revive chivalry and serve his nation under the name of Don Quixote de La Mancha. He recruits a lowly farmer, Sancho Panza, as his squire, and the two travel across the European countryside, aiding distressed damsels, battling giants and righting wrongs . . . mostly in Don Quixote’s head.
Don Quixote’s “brain’s dried up” due to his excessive reading, so much so that he’s unable to separate fantasy from reality. Truly believing himself to be the protagonist of a chivalric romance, he designates a neighboring farm girl his “courtly love” and performs various deeds on his adventures in her name, all humorously without her knowledge. The novel’s structure is episodic in form, with each short story combining into a hilarious comedy of errors, with Don Quixote trying and failing to perform acts of heroism.
But Don Quixote is much more than just a comedy. It’s a book about books. It’s a series of disconnected stories about incompatible systems of morality; Don Quixote, in aspiring to be the noble and heroic knights found in medieval literature, attempts to force his contemporaries to confront their moral failings. The book also explores the distinction between a person’s class and their worth, a fairly radical idea at the time, portraying Sancho as compassionate, wise and thoughtful and aristocratic characters such as the Duke and Duchess as frivolous and cruel. In short, it was a revolutionary novel, holding a mirror up to contemporary society.